On a grainy Zoom call shortly after Manchester United’s late win at St James’ Park, the reporters on the other end of a bad line could just about make out Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s complaint about the line of questioning. “We've won 4-1 today,” he pointed out, “and you're asking why I didn't start one of the players!”
The United manager was responding to a question about Donny van de Beek, the £35m signing from Ajax who was named among the substitutes for the fourth consecutive Premier League game despite arguably his main rival for a starting berth - Paul Pogba - being dropped from the starting line-up.
With the return of the Champions League and Tuesday’s trip to Paris Saint-Germain in mind, Solskjaer had instead elected to play Fred and Scott McTominay in the centre of midfield. That partnership was not the only surprise. Injuries, suspensions and quarantine regulations somewhat forced his hand, but he also trusted the lesser-spotted Juan Mata and Daniel James to start in attack.
There are two ways of assessing the impact of these fringe players at St James’ Park. On the one hand, they were still level with a limited Newcastle side after 85 minutes. It was only once Pogba and Van de Beek replaced Fred and James respectively that United scored three late goals to secure all three points.
Then again, each of Fred, James, Mata and McTominay made important contributions to a dominant United performance and justified their selections. Mata played particularly well, maintaining the form he has shown in the early rounds of the EFL Cup this season and during the latter stages of the Europa League campaign last term.
No player set up more shooting opportunities for his team-mates than Mata, who at 32-years-old still has the guile that United often require to beat deep-defending opponents. “He's played fantastic, Juan,” Solskjaer beamed in his post-match press conference. “He's such a professional and everyone in the team knows his qualities. He's been so patient waiting for his chance.”
James meanwhile was deployed in his preferred position, cutting in from the left flank onto his right foot, and he delivered his liveliest display in a United shirt for some time as a result. Though not best suited to playing against low blocks, James picked his moments to exploit the gaps that Newcastle regularly left open.
Only Rashford managed more shots on Karl Darlow’s goal than the Wales international, who has much still to prove as a United player, but finally took a step in the right direction. “Today he showed more positivity, he trusted himself,” Solskjaer said. “We work with all the players to express themselves and show what they're good at.”
The selection of Fred and McTominay together was slightly over cautious. Without either Pogba and Van de Beek’s playmaking - meant United struggled to create much in the way of clear-cut opportunities. But Solskjaer’s desire to offer the back four greater protection after the 6-1 defeat to Tottenham - in which, he said, United were “a bit too open” - was understandable.
Aside from a brief spell at the start of the second half, Fred and McTominay did that. Fred, in particular, remains United’s best defensively-oriented midfielder - more effective at pressing than first-choice Nemanja Matic while still a capable ball-winner, better on the ball than both Matic and McTominay too. Only Fernandes played more passes into Newcastle’s penalty area on Saturday night, despite Fred not playing the final 25 minutes.
It is only two months since the Europa League semi-final defeat, when Solskjaer openly admitted that United required greater squad depth having relied upon largely the same starting line-up throughout football’s restart. He then changed his tune towards the end of a disappointing transfer window. “I've seen many of the other players who didn't play too well the other season, play really well,” Solskjaer insisted.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between. United’s second string of players requires improvement but is good enough to beat opponents as limited as Steve Bruce’s Newcastle, who led only managed two real moments of attacking incision - the move which led to Luke Shaw’s own goal after only two minutes, and that which saw David de Gea brilliantly deny Callum Wilson at point-blank range.
Other than that, United were comfortably dominant, conceding seven shots while attempting 28 of their own. Many of those 28 shots were from range and work still needs to be done on breaking opponents down - the move for the decisive second goal only came once most of Newcastle’s players were caught up field attacking a free-kick - but there was no doubt that United deserved all three points.
With Champions League football practically every week between now and mid-December, United need a reliable cast of rotation options. They need players who - when given the right roles and deployed as part of a coherent tactical set-up - are good enough to negotiate games against the Premier League’s middle order, allowing others to rest.
Trips to Everton, Southampton and West Ham after midweek Champions League games will tell us more over the next two months. Those three sides are all better than Newcastle. But at the same time, this was a positive start for some of Solskjaer’s second string ahead of United’s long winter.
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